We used to sing this song in Sunday School, as far back as I can remember, way back when I was learning to use a big-boy potty and tie my shoes. The little light was our faith in Jesus, and letting it shine was sharing it with others, who didn't know him. Jesus loved the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they were precious in his sight, Jesus loved the little children of the world. He would make us FISHERS! of men, FISHERS! of men, FISHERS! of men, if we followed him, if we followed him, if we FAW! LOWED! HIM! I should dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone, dare to have a purpose firm, dare to make it known. Even if they fed me to the lions.
It took almost 30 years for me to really see "This Little Light" in action. Before that, it was mostly an ideal standard that made me feel guilty for not living up to it, a measuring stick that set me in competition with all the other little lights around me; if I shined a little brighter, you'd try too. But two years before Occupy Wall Street demanded economic reform at the national level, the candles lit in Charlotte, N.C., as hundreds of protestors marched on Bank of America and Wachovia in the fall of 2009. In the midst of the subprime mortgage crisis, with people facing ballooning interest rates and foreclosures on their homes, organizers delivered a theological statement against what they called "usury" — the Old Testament sin of collecting interest from the poor.
"This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine!" sang 70 customers inside the cavernous lobby at BOA headquarters.
"Even in my bank, I'm gonna let it shine!" they sang, marching seven times along the gleaming glass and polished marble walls, like Jesus throwing the moneychangers from the Temple, like the Israelites marching around the walls of Jericho, "and the walls came a'tumbl-in' down!"
"Till we get an answer, we're gonna let it shine!" they sang, as four Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers arrived to confer with bank employees.
"Oh, I've got my card, y'all, I'm gonna let it shine!" they sang, assuring the bank officials sent as buffers from the upper floors that, yes, they were Bank of America customers, and they just had some questions about the puzzling fees and rising interest-rates that were showing up on their monthly statements — about why their friends and family were losing their homes.
I hadn't known "This Little Light of Mine" was an anthem of the civil rights movement. I hadn't known this little light might shine through simple acts of justice: sitting on a bus, ordering coffee at a lunch counter, or transferring your money to a credit union built for people, not profits. I didn't know all these little flames, brought together in a simple Sunday School song reverberating around an office building, could enflesh the presence of God, even if they weren't hot enough or bright enough to right the wrongs, nor turn oppression into justice nor usher in the kingdom of God. I didn't know it could be enough just to catch a glimpse of that kingdom, wherever two or three were gathered in Christ's name. I didn't know that when Jesus taught us to pray, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors," he really meant debts — currency, paper, not just spiritual shortcomings. I didn't know this little light might actually free people, here on earth, not completely, but at least give them a bit more freedom from from things like debt, or hunger, or poverty, or violence, or loneliness. I didn't know "the light of the world," "the city on a hill," what Martin Luther King Jr. called "the Beloved Community" could show people what it meant to be a Christian, could "preach the Gospel to every creature and use words only if necessary." I didn't know this little light really could be little, because there were lots of them, and even when they all shine together, they were never meant to replace the One Big Light. I thought I had to use words. I thought lots of people had to hear those words. I thought I had to live up to those words. And I thought I had to do it alone. I thought the salvation of the world, at least some of it, depended on me.
Jesse James DeConto is a journalist, musician and author of the spiritual memoir This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World. He is releasing a series of excerpts like this one, paired with music videos for songs that shaped his story. "This Little Light of Mine" is the first.